Building one community in Fairfield County

June 8, 2018 GMT

I have a good friend named Bruce. When he retired a few years back he promised his wife that he would attend to various landscaping and house repair projects. He told me it was quite a list and after a while he recognized the need for reinforcements. This came in the form of a team of immigrant workers under the supervision of Carlos Rivera, a hard-working young man, newly arrived in the U.S.

Bruce was impressed by a number of things about him. Carlos was a young man of great character and integrity who worked incredibly hard. It was also clear that life was challenging for Carlos and other immigrant workers who worked on Bruce’s house projects.

Bruce is not the kind of man to stand idly by when an issue needs to be addressed, and at a summer barbecue at his home he presented me with a leaflet for an initiative to help the immigrant population in the greater Stamford area. In 2011, Neighbors Link, now known as Building One Community: The Center for Immigrant Opportunity (“B1C”), opened its doors to become a welcoming point of entry for newcomers from all parts of the world. Immigrants who relied on a patchwork of services in a system that didn’t fully understand their needs — and those who went without any help at all — discovered a place that was created with them in mind. Since then, thousands of Stamford-area immigrants and non-immigrants have come together to build one stronger community.

On a recent weekday morning, in the largest meeting room of the Stamford Marriott Hotel, local business leaders and representatives from across the faith communities and political spectrum came together to celebrate the extraordinary success of B1C.

“Despite the unsettled atmosphere in our country during 2017, the (B1C) staff and volunteers did a remarkable job continuing to serve the immigrant community in the greater Stamford area,” shared Catalina Horak, B1C’s executive director.

Speaking of the courage and fortitude of the immigrant community, Horak commented: “Their stories are compelling; their dreams are bright.”

In 2017, an army of 400 B1C volunteers (50 of them students from Greenwich and Stamford) worked with 2,821 clients from 54 countries, providing them with opportunities to learn, to work and to become productive members of the broader community. Building One Community’s numbers are impressive. Last year, 1,438 clients enrolled in English as a second language (ESL) or vocational ESL classes; 579 clients obtained jobs or participated in job training classes and formal certification programs; and 1,266 clients participated in support programs for assistance with immigration issues, health care, tax preparation, parenting and school engagement.

Board Chair Anne Downey commented: “Building One Community focuses on creating opportunities for immigrants seeking to extend their skills and improve their lives. Our programs educate, employ, empower and engage the entire community in the process.”

Rich Andre, associate director of state and local initiatives for New American Economy (“NAE”), brought some helpful context to the work of Building One Community. NAE is a bipartisan coalition of more than 500 mayors and business leaders from all 50 states who recognize just how important immigration is to our communities’ ability to succeed, to compete economically, and to be strong and safe.

“Immigrants come from all over the world, and many have come to Stamford and Fairfield County to pursue their American dream,” Andre commented. “And some need some support, whether that be English or job training or the like. B1C is providing this support. It’s not a handout; it’s a hand up. [Building One Community] helps folks realize their potential and contribute fully to this community.”

Andre told us that entrepreneurship was also one of his favorite statistics to talk about. He added: “There’s something inherently entrepreneurial about the immigrant experience. Uprooting from one’s country, moving to a new place and starting over is a risk-taking endeavor. And so we see that risk-taking mirrored in the fact that immigrants are much more likely to start a business, both nationally and also in Fairfield County. Immigrants account for more than a third of small business owners in the county, much larger than their share overall, and they’re bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in business income.”

I had the honor of sitting next to Bruce at this extraordinary celebration. And seated on Bruce’s other side was Carlos Rivera, who had worked for the landscaping business that Bruce used for 16 years. I learned that it was B1C that gave Carlos the opportunity to improve his English, and study for and pass his GED. In 2017 he bought the landscaping business and is successfully growing it in Stamford and Greenwich. Bruce and other professionals are now helping Carlos grow as a manager and business owner.

The Hebrew word for “justice” is “mishpat.” Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably or fairly, to give people their rights, to protect and to care. But there is a second Hebrew word used in the Bible that can be translated as “being just.” That word is “tzadeqa” and it refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity. I am proud to have a friend like Bruce and humbled by B1C’s enduring commitment to and embodiment of exactly this kind of rare and Godly justice.

The Rev. Drew Williams is the senior pastor of Trinity Church.